The Fourth of July is arguably the biggest barbeque day of the year in America. For those fortunate enough to have the holiday, or maybe even a long weekend off, there’s a pretty standard way to pass the day that includes praying for sunshine, lounging on a beach or boat, fireworks, and of course, throwing meat on a grill. In every group of family or friends, there’s usually a designated grillmaster that aces it every time. Otherwise, it’s some dopey dad in a Kiss the Cook apron, who serves up charred burgers with raw centers every time. This article is for that guy. Because some of the best pitmasters on the Island are about to drop their BBQ knowledge. And if even that fails, one of them offers takeout.
“Slow and low, that is the tempo,” insisted my good friends The Beastie Boys. They may have been talking about the beat behind their rhymes, but the same applies to good barbeque. Really great smoked barbeque can take hours to perfect. According to Tim Laursen of Local Smoke, it’s all about “patience, good fire control, and understanding the heat source.”
Local Smoke, which debuted their local BBQ creations at the Ag Fair in 2010, is comprised of Mr. Laursen, a sculptor/musician, and farmer/stonemason Everett Whiting. Mr. Whiting’s family has been holding roasts for generations, but Laursen said, “it’s sort of a vacation for us to become pitmasters.”
Local Smoke raises their own pigs and they use chicken from Whippoorwill Farm, Cleveland Farm, or The Good Farm. They are also big fans of local lamb, and beef ribs. “People should try beef ribs,” Mr. Laursen said. “They’re nicely marbleized and have giant bones.”
Mssrs. Laursen and Whiting use an old-fashioned smoker to maintain the correct temperature, slow cooking the meat for hours, sometimes half a day. The smoker, which has a firebox built in, runs the smoke through chambers to cool it to the ideal temp of 190 to 240 degrees. They use a paprika-based dry rub of 15 spices before the meat hits the fire, then baste it. “I’ve experimented with injecting beer and moisture,” Laursen said. “I’ve also been working on a vinegar based sauce — I love that tangy after-splash.” But overall, Laursen said, the idea is to keep it simple: “The flavor the dry oak wood imparts is unique in itself.”
While an old-fashioned slow cooker is awesome, it’s not essential to good BBQ. A charcoal fire will do the trick. Here are Laursen’s tips for the home chef cooking pork butt, shoulder, or ribs:
“Let the charcoal get grey before you cook. Identify the hottest part of the fire, move the heat to one side, move your meat to the other side, and put the lid on. You also want to keep a tin foil tray underneath with water for moisture. Cook it low and slow. Don’t touch it, don’t poke it with a knife or cut it open. Once you put it on, let it be, so it develops a nice crust. We’re talking surface temps of 600 to 900 degrees: charcoal burns hot, so it’s about keeping the meat from burning while it cooks slowly. Be patient. Leave them for the first hour, hour and a half, before turning.”
Okay, so let’s say something goes horribly wrong. The freight vessel delivering all the charcoal to the Island gets commandeered by pirates. Or, your drunken slob of a friend topples into the grill, knocking all of the meat into the fire. What do you do? You do what Islanders do every day they want good barbeque: call up Smoke ‘N Bones.
Owner Stewart Robinson says 40 to 60 percent of the business at his Oak Bluffs restaurant comes from takeout, so don’t be ashamed. They also run a huge catering business. All their meat is treated to a dry rub, marinated, and smoked for four to seven hours at a low heat. “We’re one of the only spots in New England that does a real Southern style barbeque.” Mr. Robinson said. His chef is straight out of North Carolina, so you know it’s true.
Mr. Robinson added, “We use only the best cuts of meat, we don’t fool around here.”
Offerings include all the staples, such as baby backs, pulled pork and chicken, and brisket. One of the most popular sides is “Stewart’s World Famous Onion Rings,” which aren’t at all greasy. There’s also a great kids menu.
As far as grilling at home goes, Mr. Robinson noted that “everyone has their own style.” Everyone has their own favorites too. Edgartown Meat and Fish Market prepares great marinated meats and kabobs that are as simple as picking up and placing on a grill. Soigne is a good place to snag sides. Black Sheep does cured and smoked meats in addition to awesome cheeses. Reliable Market and Shiretown Meats have butcheries. It’s always optimal to check farm stands for local meat too. I got some killer ribs from Blackwater Farm last week. There are as many options on the Island as there are people.
Mr. Laursen told me that he recently visited Prospect Park in Brooklyn, while scores of families were out barbecuing. There were Armenians, Russians, African Americans, South Americans, all with meat sizzling away on a grill. Each smoke cloud smelled a little different, each style unique, but it was all based on the same idea.
“Barbeque is an equalizer,” Mr. Laursen said. “It’s simple, and timeless. It brings everyone together. It’s a complicated world, everyone’s lives are different, but when they’re standing next to a barbeque, it’s pretty universal what you’re supposed to do: relax, enjoy company, knowing there will be food. That’s what summer’s all about.” Now what could be more American than that?